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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Visit

Also see Susan's review of The Internationalist

The Visit
Chita Rivera and George Hearn
Chita Rivera is a goddess, even if The Visit, the dark musical that has brought her to Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, is not always as polished as her performance. In her seventies and the winner of two Tony Awards, Rivera commands the stage with comfortable authority, acting, singing, dancing a little (limited by the fact that her character has a prosthetic leg), and for one breathtaking moment looking radiantly youthful and flirtatious. In that instant, she puts to shame Mary Ann Lamb, the sleek dancer who represents the memory of Rivera's youth.

The musical by John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics) and Terrence McNally (book) premiered in 2001 in Chicago, and the Signature production reunites the star of that production, Rivera, with original director and choreographer Frank Galati and Ann Reinking, whose work is both sensitive and imaginative. At Signature Rivera is joined by another Broadway staple and double Tony Award winner, George Hearn, who ably conveys his character's growth from swaggering pride to touching gravitas.

What makes the show less than fully satisfying is that Kander and Ebb were experimenting with form: many of the songs are brief and lapse into dialogue rather than reaching an end, and the more tuneful songs echo earlier works in the songwriters' catalog. The overall effect is similar to that of Kiss of the Spider Woman, another tragic story lightened with humor (which also has a book by McNally and also starred Rivera).

The Visit is based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 1956 play, as adapted for American audiences by Maurice Valency. It's a funny yet scathing look at questions of morality and how groups of people can convince themselves and each other that the most immoral actions can be justified. (Dürrenmatt was Swiss, and he was writing not long after the devastation brought by World War II.)

The residents of the economically depressed Swiss town of Brachen are close to starvation; although Anton Schell (Hearn) runs a general store, no one can afford to buy anything. Their only chance for survival comes from Claire Zachanassian (Rivera), who left Brachen in disgrace at the age of 17 but now, several decades and seven husbands later, is the richest woman in the world. She is eager to bail out the town, but only if the residents agree to a condition that would seem unthinkable at the very least and is obviously impossible to fulfill. Still, Claire is patient, and she knows that as she says of strangulation "A little pressure in the right place, and the rest goes by itself."

The intimate MAX Theatre, configured with a thrust stage, brings the audience right into the action; the viewer's perspective is the edge of the ramshackle town square of Brachen, designed by Derek McLane with a rear wall that suggests the windows and doorways of a ruined factory, a wood plank floor, and a few set pieces in abstract space. Howell Binkley's lighting design helps to shape the playing area, and Susan Hilferty has created costumes that delineate both Claire's effortless elegance and the seediness of the townspeople.

Signature Theatre
The Visit
May 13th June 22nd
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Based on the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, adapted by Maurice Valency
The Visitors:
Claire Zachanassian: Chita Rivera
Evgeny: Doug Kreeger
Rudi: James Harris
Lenny: Howard Kaye
Benny: Alan H. Green
Jacob Chicken: Ryan Lowe
Louis Perch: Matthew Deming
The Visited:
Anton Schell: George Hearn
Matilda: Karen Murphy
Karl: Kevin Reed
Ottilie: Cristen Paige
The Mayor: Mark Jacoby
Annie, The Mayor's Wife: Bethe B. Austin
The Priest: Michael Hayward-Jones
The Schoolmaster: Jeremy Webb
The Doctor: Jerry Lanning
The Policeman: Hal Robinson
Kurt: Brian O'Brien
Townspeople: Leslie Becker, Brianne Moore, Christy Morton
Young Anton: D.B. Bonds
Young Claire: Mary Ann Lamb
Directed by Frank Galati
Choreography by Ann Reinking
Conductor: Jon Kalbfleisch
MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or www.signature-theatre.org


Photo: Scott Suchman


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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